As the hen harrier season comes to an end, I thought I'd welcome Bea Ayling, the RSPB's hen harrier officer, to give her reflections on the season.

Whilst hiking in the Pentland Hills last weekend, enjoying the fresh smell of the blooming heather after the rain and the stunning views over Edinburgh, I couldn’t help but feel sad. Not because the summer is coming to an end, but because I knew, yet again hen harriers are struggling to survive in our uplands and I had little chance of seeing a hen harrier myself that day.

It’s been a turbulent year for hen harriers and for those of us trying to protect them and given all the confusion, I thought that it would be helpful if my end of year round-up set the record straight. This year, there were only six successful nests in England, fledging 18 chicks. Although this is the most successful year since 2010, we are still a long way from the 300 or more breeding pairs that there should be in England’s uplands. The main reason hen harriers are in such a desperate situation is illegal persecution because they are perceived as a threat to the production of high numbers of red grouse for shooting.

The RSPB was involved in the protection of three of these successful nests this year, one in Bowland and two on Forestry Commission land in Northumberland, where we are part of the Northumberland Hen Harrier Protection Partnership with the Forestry Commission and Natural England. This was the first successful pairing and breeding of hen harriers on a public forest estate in Northumberland for several years

However, it wasn’t an easy ride. We are aware of an additional seven nesting attempts in England that sadly failed. Of these, five failed due to the still unexplained and unusual disappearances of five apparently healthy adult males (four from Bowland and one from Geltsdale). Males are vulnerable when travelling far and wide in order to provision the female whilst on the nest. If the male fails to return to the nest, the female is forced to leave to look for food and the nest will fail.

At Bowland, there was a second egg laying attempt by one of the females in one of the original nests (i.e. two egg clutches in one nest). Unfortunately this second attempt failed and we think this might have been due to the adopting male being a young bird who lacked the experience to provision well enough. The final failure at Bowland was likely due to predation by a small, ground-based predator such as a stoat.

CREDIT: James Bray, RSPB

Happier news is that RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. This was on the tiny percentage of the UK's uplands where the RSPB has reserves, which is why we are working hard to help hen harriers beyond our reserves too. In some cases, the RSPB and our partners operate 24 hour nest protection under necessary licences from statutory authorities  and following strict protocols to ensure there is no unnecessary disturbance. It’s a drastic measure, but one that works, protecting two successful hen harrier nests last year and we have operated many similar successful nest watch schemes over the years for other rare birds, such as the bee-eater nest in Cumbria this summer, Montagu’s harriers and red kites.

We’re also doing everything we can to protect these birds once they leave the nest and are able to satellite tag hen harriers thanks to the support of the EU LIFE+ Programme. The JNCC identifies illegal persecution as the key threat to hen harriers and satellite tagging is helping to improve understanding of this threat. We can follow the birds where they go and recover bodies if they die which we send for post mortem. This has allowed us to identify cases of illegal persecution that would have otherwise gone undetected. For example, Annie, a female hen harrier chick satellite tagged last year on Scotland’s Langholm Moor went missing in March 2015. Thanks to satellite tagging, her body which had been shot was recovered elsewhere.

Through the Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project, the RSPB was able to satellite tag one male chick in Bowland in July. When the tag showed that the bird was not moving, our Investigations Team went out to check on the birds. Sadly, three of the four chicks in the nest were found dead close to the nest; however, one chick had fledged and was seen flying around.

The post-mortems and other tests on the three chicks were inconclusive. Our camera footage shows that the juveniles were alive at least two days after tagging and that they were not killed during the day. Since the close proximity of the three bodies doesn’t suggest predation, we therefore suspect that they succumbed to either disease or starvation and were subsequently scavenged.

We are closely following the movements of the other birds that we satellite tagged this summer, and we hope to share some of their stories with you soon on the project website:

Working with partners and volunteers, the RSPB is doing more than ever to protect hen harriers across the UK thanks to our supporters and EU funding from the LIFE+ Programme. The work underway through the  Hen Harrier LIFE+ Project includes:

-          making use of the improved understanding of hen harrier movements to enhance the protection of hen harriers at both breeding and wintering sites.

-          ensuring as far as possible that habitat availability does not limit harrier recovery.

-          raising public awareness throughout the UK of hen harriers, the threats they face, and conservation efforts to overcome these.

-          encouraging recognition by local communities and land managers of the hen harrier as an iconic species of upland landscapes, to increase support for their protection.

With better understanding of the movements of hen harriers coming from the LIFE+ Prroject, we remain hopeful that England's harriers can look forward to better prospects. 

  • Whatever the ins and outs of Hen harrier politics, I'd just like to express to Bea and her team the huge respect I have for their efforts. It must have been unbelievably depressing as male after male failed to return from their hunting - and as an ex FC person, I'm so proud that the FC-RSPB partnership produced one of the few rays of sunshine in an otherwise dismal season. I hope that the huge and increasing support for hen harriers is an inspiration for the incredibly hard, demanding and often frustrating work the RSPB HH team is undertaking.

  • It's good news about two successful pairs of Hen Harriers in Northumberland in North East England which borders my home county of Tyne and Wear.

  • Great efforts by the RSPB, terrific.